3 July 2000
the post-industrial breakfast
john chris jones (jcj), the Internet and everyone (i+e), ellipsis, London 2000
(see also the beginning of the electronic version at www.ellipsis.com/i+e/ and jcj´s ´public writing space´ at www.softopia.demon.co.uk)
(527): "And what has become of the book? she asks, looking for further inscriptions, until she sees discarded pages blown by the wind and settling on the grass. But there is only one phrase:
that is printed on every page."
An irritating book by an author who is largely unknown, at least in Germany. I doubt whether many people outside the design community ever heard of jcj. He has been one of the leading and best-known researchers in this field, the most prominent figure in the British Design Methods Movement of the 1960s. Around 1970 he turned away from the narrow field, as Christopher Alexander, the American protagonist, did at the same time. They were both deterred and disappointed by the readiness of the community to read their tentative proposals and considerations regarding more comprehensive and transparent and humane ways of designing as frozen recipes for objective problem-solving. And the abandoning of methods at all followed the misconception as recipes, which had to lead unavoidably to frustration. This story has been reported a hundred times from many perspectives.
Most design researchers still respect jcj as one of the grand old men of the field, but mainly ignore his countless contributions and interventions since that time. In my view he never stopped designing and theorizing. Maybe one could argue that it is only after he had radicalized the academic approaches of the 60s and 70s that he really started. Maybe only jesters have a chance to proceed in design theory building?
Why an irritating book? Because first of all the reader has to realise that this book does not intend to tell him or her something, to transmit some pre-fixed message. It is a loosely linked collection of texts instead, enabling him or her to construct a thousand more or less meaningful things / thoughts out of it. The author becomes an organiser of contexts, no longer controlling what happens. First of all i+e is a collection of personal thoughts. And maybe therefore, in addition, one needs a kind of affinity to his writing style in order to find an individual entry point.
(546): "... but I see now that all this writing is no more than my own re-education, the gradual undoing of those specialised adult lessons of long ago which I too quickly and obediently learnt when I found the world to be unloving or repressive if I refused them... or something like that, he says as he rewrites the unrecorded history of his infancy or sea."
Having grasped this idea, one can go on and possibly discover that it is what jcj did since the late 1940s: reflection on designing designing, aiming at very pragmatic purposes. In my view it is nothing less than the design of a meta-theory of designing.
Why is the design community unable and / or unwilling to realise that what he is doing, is designing and theory-building par excellence? It is dealing with design conceived as the projection of future ways of living, as opposed to the narrow concepts of design as formgiving, product planning, marketing support, meaning creation, etc. In this perspective design is, potentially, an activity of everyone and design theory has to be a theory of everything. To be more precise: a theory of everything that COULD BE, as opposed to what IS, which is the subject of science. Just for that reason a conceptual model of designing, if taken seriously, cannot be developed according to the standards of science. For design science has to be the ladder to be left behind in order to proceed. Of course, there are parallels in the processes of fact production in science and ´solution´ production in design, but there is a fundamental difference between the respective end products.
Maybe it is the form of his writing that irritates design researchers? His narrative, even poetic style, his fiction, his deliberate disregard of standards. In the book there is the obvious non-sequentiality and circularity of argumentation, the multiplicity of levels, the self-referentiality due to the observer´s (jcj´s own) involvement, the paradox.
(190): "All my life I ´ve made vows not to do things that later I did."
All this could probably be expressed in a (pseudo-) scientific language. But maybe the subject matter of design as a whole, on a meta-level, does not fit this style of description. It is a risk to conceptualize the subject matter of design analogous to the subject matter of science, because this would blur the fundamental difference introduced through the inherent components of uncertainty, projection, normativity, human decisions, contingency, ... or: the observers´ being part of the observed. So it seems fully legitimate to design ´strong´ descriptive theory in this ´weak´ language. The misunderstandings resulting from the Methods Movement, as mentioned above, might illustrate this argument.
Of course there are operational theories and methods, small theories on other (lower?) levels of designing. These are for the most part taken from the sciences or the humanities and thus should be formulated as such. But it is at least questionable to try to adapt the whole of designing to traditional scientific standards. It sounds paradoxical: the strong theories of design don´t necessarily have to be scientific.
If it were possible to map a brain onto the format of a book, the book would probably look like i+e. There seems to be a similarity between a brain and this book on designing, which has a hypertext structure organised along the fictional sequence of a series of 25 letters. Designing takes place in the swampy, hybrid region between the contexts (social, technological, cultural, political, ...) and the world of artefacts. Designing deals with the fit between those floating, co-evolving regions, in a process jcj calls ´purposive drift´. Design problems are networks of incommensurable and shifting factors that have to be transformed into preferred states. There seems to be a strange kind of self-similarity on the different levels of design: network topologies are showing up. Design theory should be a mirror of this situation, which seems to be highly uncomfortable and irritating. At the moment, however, the mainstream seems to work on the conservation (or better: the belated establishment) of old-European structures that are even questioned in the sciences today.
The concept of the network in i+e is metaphoric, but not only metaphoric. The Internet stands for the existing electronic networks in post-industrial civilization and for their social potential. For the first time it is possible now to wake up from ´the frozen industrial dream´ of the last 200 years and to enjoy ´the post-industrial breakfast´. In this sense jcj is a real modern utopian, a utopian socialist, even an anarkist. He realises and almost even praises the unlimited potential of information technology to get rid of central control, of hierarchies, of representative democracy, of fossil technologies resulting in pollution and traffic jams and so on and so on.
He calls this new form of control, which is shared by everyone, ´creative democracy´. One of the main characteristics of this post-industrial condition is despecialization. Knowledge will be more and more implemented in software, skills can be learned on the job by everyone. The modern concept of ´work´ is losing significance. Specialists, including designers, become enablers, creating and maintaining these new conditions of creative democracy.
jcj sees the chance to overcome the old Western dualisms of mind and body, of reason and intuition, of perfection and everyone, ... He creates the complementary characters of Edwina Mare (the female voice of reason) and William Dragon (the male voice of intuition) and the complementary characters of utopia (the voice of perfection) and numeroso (the voice of everyone). And there is Dr. Bellamy (the voice, the second self, of jcj?) experimenting with a virtual planet earth, called j-921, where the projects of technology2, of the internet2, of me2 (me too?) are simulated. They all act in wonderful fictions, opening a vast associative field of potentiality, transforming the harsh dualisms of black&white into the beauty of grey. Even the distinction between good (God) and evil (Devil) is supposed to be exchanged by a new dynamic concept of self-organisation, including both. One might obtain a first glance of the idea of an autonomous ´3rd culture´, aside from the established dualism of the sciences and the humanities, the culture of the artificial, of designing as it could be.
It does not appear to be very promising to continue with arguments that this is in fact design meta-theory. The self-experiment of reading i+e should be made and the consequences experienced. Maybe it works, and the reader gets a new idea of designing, or it does not work and the reader is frustrated. My review, as jcj´s book, does not intend to impose thoughts, it tries to share thoughts. For me the ´sharing of thoughts´, even temporary immersion, worked several times. For example, the following passage on a new concept of time under the conditions of the internet2, after awakening from the industrial dream, had this effect (478, 479):
"I see this now as change from a single universal clocktime (necessary for centralisation?) to multiple times, several for each person (necessary for living more fully, and decentrally?). ... What came to me as I woke was a new conception of time, one consisting of ´connective moments´ which can, if we let them, link any moment to any other."
It is not at all the degree of elaboration or practicability of its proposals what makes i+e so attractive, but the poetic strength, the sceptical optimism, the lightness, the author´s involvement, etc. which create this potential of empowerment. It encourages acquiring a new kind of thinking: getting rid of the desire to control and to be controlled. And to love the idea of an empty centre. Because there is no longer a centre. Because we don´t need a centre any more.
This beautifully designed little (A6 format) and big (592pages) book is not at all a must-read. Especially not for Internet freaks who might expect something very different. But it is a chance for a new kind of reading experience for rabbits and sheep and goats and humans and other animals entering the challenging new age of networks and de-centralization. And particularly for designers. It is a very personal book with lots of autobiographical pieces and lots of older articles (still in a more academic language) on design and theory and methods, providing a tremendous potential of personal experience for the reader. It might turn out to be a treasure.